Michael Vick: Still in the doghouse

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What does Michael Vick want for Christmas? A dog, apparently. Don’t panic: He’s not allowed to get one until 2012, when he finishes the probation that followed his nearly two-year prison sentence for running a dog-fighting ring. But there’s much anticipatory anxiety in the air nonetheless.

It all started this month, when the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback told a group of children at the Boys and Girls Club of Newark, N.J., that he longed for a canine companion “more than anything in the world.” He’s said such things before, but for some reason the press took notice of it this time and Vick was soon reiterating the statement in interviews.

“I think [getting a dog] would be a big step for me in the rehabilitation process,” he told NBC News and the website theGrio last week. “I think just to have a pet in my household and to show people that I genuinely care, and my love and passion for animals; I think it would be outstanding.”


Needless to say, many people are finding this idea less than outstanding. Though Vick has plenty of supporters (and that’s to say nothing of his game performance this season), they seem to have been drowned out this week by a mighty wave of blogospheric indignation. Countless Internet commenters are wearing out their caps lock keys in disapproval. Meanwhile, a casual survey of those ultra-precise data collecting devices known as Internet polls suggests the no-dog vote is in the majority.

Though Vick has made a great comeback on the field, his name is still synonymous with the gruesome details surrounding the torture and killing of dozens of pit bulls in his underground operation, Bad Newz Kennels. These days, he’s also known for making a rather strenuous-seeming effort to save his image. Last year, amid great controversy, Vick teamed up with the Humane Society in an anti-dog-fighting campaign, and he regularly talks to schoolchildren about how to treat animals humanely.

Whether or not Vick is sincere — and like any outside observer, I can’t presume to know — I’d bet most people won’t be able to look past his crimes any time soon. That’s because as much as we love redemption stories, particularly those involving celebrities, a lot of us love animals even more, sometimes to a degree that defies rationality.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that Vick had been imprisoned on spousal abuse charges. And say that after serving his time and declaring himself rehabilitated (and getting divorced along the way) he was suddenly in the headlines for marrying again. Would there be as much of a public outcry? Would newspapers take polls as to whether he should remain single forever? Would people actually be debating whether a judge should order him not to marry again?

There would certainly be interest and concern. But my guess is that a “Wedding Bells for Wife Beater” story wouldn’t elicit quite the level of emotion we’re seeing with the “Dog Abuser Might Get New Dog” story, and not solely because we’re accustomed to reading about bad behavior and poor judgment on the part of humans. There’s just something profoundly upsetting about an animal being hurt. On the day in 2007 that Vick’s abuses came to light, there were undoubtedly countless other stories in the news detailing great human suffering. But it was the suffering of nonhumans that elicited the most outrage, not just because their torturer was a famous athlete but because, well, those poor, poor dogs!

Such responses are not a function of caring more about animals than about humans. On the contrary, it may be that human suffering, particularly child suffering, may be so painful to contemplate that we focus on animals instead. But I also wonder whether the uncomplicated relationship we have with animals often means that any distress we experience around them is equally uncomplicated, and therefore that much more intense. Just as the grief we feel when we lose a pet is a raw, untempered grief, the rage we feel when we learn of cases like Vick’s is a pure rage, an anger undefiled by careful analysis or perspective. In that sense, the debate surrounding Vick isn’t about whether or not he deserves a dog. It’s about the power of visceral reactions. In the face of this one, it’s hard to imagine there’s anything he could do to redeem himself.